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The Dead White Dude Who Saved My Mind
J. B. Bury at the Turn of Two Lost Centuries
© 2013 James LaFond
At age fifteenth I was repeating ninth grade for the second time, my third stab at basic math. I had fought my way into solitude, and managed to stay there by not getting high, which was what everyone else I knew did with their spare time. Without a friend to identify with, I commiserated with my books. While I passed time waiting for my sixteenth birthday so I could dropout, I read: in shop class, gym class, and every class. What I read was of my own choosing. One-by-one the teachers kicked me out of class and wrote me a library pass, until, by the time I dropped out in late March, I had spent seven months reading. In that time I managed to plough through about a hundred books.
Now that I was a free punk with a minimum wage job I needed to find new reading material. I could afford sci-fi paperbacks and Tarzan novels, but history books were way out of my price range. I had also discovered that there were two guys my age who did not get stoned: Randy and Dale. I began playing war games and role playing games with these much smarter boys. I don’t think I was ever a very good friend to either of them and we eventually lost touch. They both served as my mentors at a crucial age, when I was a knucklehead learning how to think.
Dale was the speculative guy, the inquisitive, pondering soul. Randy was the history buff of the two, and ended up becoming a metallurgic engineer. He suggested I go to the local private university library in search of history books. He told me two things: that I would have to read there because I was not a student; and that since I liked reading about barbarians so much I should look up a book about the barbarian invasions of the late Roman Empire by J.B. Bury. I can no longer recall the title, and it may have been an abridged portion of Bury’s massive History of the Later Roman Empire, written when he was only 28-years-old.
Bury was a professor of modern and Greek history from 1893 to 1902. After the frustration of reading my high school history texts seven and eight times, and coming away with more questions than answers and few clues on how to arrive at my own conclusions, I had been thrilled to find real history books by authors like Will Durant in the high school library. The ability to manage such diverse strands of information and present a cohesive story of mankind’s struggles awed me.
When I read Bury at the college library something clicked in my mind. He did not seem to need as many ‘angles of discussion’ to make his point; just weaved a huge story in a modest space. Reading Bury was one of the many tipping points for me in the development of my thought process. From this vantage I must say that he influenced my thinking more than the rest because of my formative age when I encountered his work. I read that book three times figuring that such an old title would never be reprinted.
Some twenty years later my brother gave me a gift, a book by Bury that I have read cover-to-cover three times, and just finished reading backwards today. I hope rereading books from back-to-front is not some form of mental illness. Of the hundreds of books on Greek history I have read, this is the one I use to balance my conclusions. Bury is the supreme court judge that sits in the back of my little ape’s brain and judges the other eggheads that debate between my ears. Bury was the man I went to when my editor told me that I had to ‘cut the head off’ of The Broken Dance before it got so big it would not be publishable. All I had to do was look at the cover of the professor’s book to find the answer.
I was thinking today as I scribbled in the margins of this cloth bound volume on the #8 bus that without Randy and Professor Bury at that crucial stage I might have stopped learning how to use this brain for something other than stopping a fist. It’s about time I gave the old dude his due.
A History of Greece
To The Death of Alexander the Great
Fourth Edition [The 4 editions went through 49 reprints between 1900 and 1989.]
J.B. Bury and Russell Meiggs
Mcmillan, 1975, London, 577 pages
A History of Greece is an old school text book. It does not follow the heavily segmented magazine layout of the text books we 1970’s Americans grew up on. It was also not written by committee, and therefore offers opinions, something unforgivable in our current, more enlightened, age of political correctness.
The 36 maps imbedded in the text are excellent and up to date. The pullout map in the back gives better land contours than you usually get, which is very important for understanding Greek history. Most maps in history books just give political information. These maps—and particularly the pullout—let the reader appreciate the geographic constraints of the peninsula. The photos and illustrations are sparse by modern comic book standards.
This history reads chronologically across 18 chapters, two columns to a page. The use of side notes in the margins makes this an excellent research tool. This book was written to be used by writers, teachers and students; and, is written in the type of clean narrative style that makes it accessible to the general reader. Based on the printing history I’m not the only history nerd that holds that opinion.
Russell Meiggs deserves a lot of credit for his unobtrusive working in of more recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship. To understand how good Bury was you just have to read a lot of the bigoted crap that the common scholars of his generation put out. One of the toughest things I did was read the ancients portion of the Peabody Collection [before they closed that library to the public]. Wading through the often pretentious translations through the veil of 19th Century bigotry was not easy reading. Bury holds up today, and is one of those historians with a gift for grasping the dynamics of human action on a social scale.
Let me quote the man’s first sentence and conclude with a line from his last paragraph:
“The rivers and valleys, the mountains, bays and islands of Greece will become familiar as our story unfolds itself, and we need not enter here into any minute discussion.”
“…no people who has ever borne the torch of civilization has been willing, or even able, to recognize that the hour of relinquishing sovereignty has come.”
Bury, like some others of his generation, presented history as a story with a lesson, rather than as a parade of facts or a series or arguments. We have some good historical writers out their now doing the same with more material to work from. But Bury is special to me, the first thinker that really got between my ears and stayed.
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